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The rise of the Satanic Temple in Canada

Global News logo Global News 2019-07-20 Rachel Browne
a statue of a person: The Satanic Temple unveils its statue of Baphomet, a winged goat creature, at a rally for the First Amendment in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. © AP Photo/Hannah Grabenstein The Satanic Temple unveils its statue of Baphomet, a winged goat creature, at a rally for the First Amendment in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.

Nicholas Marc stood to address the group of Satanists gathered before him.

“Welcome to the many new faces here tonight,” he said.

It was a Wednesday evening in Ottawa, and around two dozen people had gathered for the biweekly meeting of the Satanic Temple. Some were there in secret, fearful of getting fired from their jobs or being shunned by their families for associating with such a group.

Instead of an actual temple or place of worship, they congregate at The Koven, a heavy metal bar downtown adorned with skulls, spikes and drawings of the underworld. Some ordered beer or one of the 17 types of poutine, which include the DevilDriver and Cheesus Krist. 

“When we first started, there was like four or five of us at meetings. Now there’s this,” Marc said as he extended a tattooed hand toward everyone seated at the tables. “And it’s happening across Canada.”

Satanists bring statue to state capitol (video by KTHV-TV Little Rock)

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As the national co-ordinator for the Satanic Temple in Canada, Marc has overseen the group’s latest developments and events since he started the chapter here in 2016. He says he got involved shortly after retiring from a decade in the Canadian military, searching for a new purpose in life, and new regimens.

Many members, including Marc, were raised in devout Catholic households. Once they eschewed those beliefs, they found their way to Satanism. And it makes them feel whole.

Lately, Marc can barely keep up with the sudden explosion of interest in the Temple and says hundreds of people across the country are trying to join.

“We have to put a moratorium on new chapters because we literally have too much growth right now,” Marc told the group. Attendees passed around brochures that describe the Satanic Temple’s mission as facilitating “the communication and motivation of politically aware Satanists, secularists and advocates for individual liberty.”

Their literature also clarifies that they do not worship the devil.

While his Ottawa group is the only official chapter of the Satanic Temple in Canada, a number of unofficial groups — called Friends of the Satanic Temple — have been popping up across the country over the last year. They aim to become official chapters, but must first go through an official vetting process. And that takes time.

Marc recited the list off his phone.

“There’s Atlantic Canada, Toronto, Montreal, one in Edmonton and one in Calgary, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg,” he said, adding that the Temple is trying to be methodical with the sanctioning process and he expects most of these groups will be granted official status over the next year.

READ MORE: Satanic Temple unveils goat statue in protest of Ten Commandments monument in Arkansas

While the group, founded in the U.S. in 2013, has carved out a clear role in their battle for the separation of church and state there, its Canadian counterpart is still shaping its identity and the issues it hopes to tackle. 

“We have a place and a role to play in our community,” Marc said. That night, a few members volunteered to organize their participation in the Capital Pride Festival parade and arrange an “unbaptism” ceremony in August. While members are not required to participate in any rituals, the Ottawa group hosts unbaptisms for people who want to undo the Christian rite imposed on them as children, and holds a Black Mass, which its website describes as "a celebration of blasphemy, which can be an expression of personal liberty and freedom."

The Ottawa meeting was about to come to a close.

“You may now yap amongst yourselves, and I’m going to go have a cigarette,” Marc said.

The group cheered: “Hail Satan!” 

A man in his 50s, who wanted to go by the pseudonym Mourning Starr due to fear of reprisals if he were publicly identified, said this was his third time attending Satanic Temple gatherings, which included the last "unbaptism" hosted by the group.

"I learned about this by reading news on the computer," said Starr, who said he, too, was raised Roman Catholic. "I cannot resist a spectacle."

He said he is still deciding whether to become an official member.

"There's something humourous and clever about claiming to be a nontheistic religion in order to advance the separation of church and state," he said. "But in Canada, I'm not sure if we have those same issues or not."

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New Satanists on the block

What started out as a small, mostly virtual satanic group has since grown over the last six years into an international movement that boasts more than 100,000 members, with 18 official chapters in the U.S, known for its provocative demonstrations for free speech, religious freedom and LGBTQ2 rights. Awareness comes through word of mouth and the internet, not through formal recruitment or proselytization.

The group abides by seven "fundamental tenets," including that "one’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone" and "the freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend."

Within a year of its formation, the Satanic Temple achieved notoriety for hosting a “pink mass” at the gravesite of the mother of Fred Phelps, founder of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. The “pink mass” was an example of extreme trolling, and involved same-sex couples kissing over the grave as a ceremony to make Phelps’ mother “gay in the afterlife.”

The group grabbed international headlines and attracted hoards of new followers in 2015 when it unveiled its eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Baphomet, a winged goat creature of occult lore, in what was described as the "largest public satanic ceremony in history."

Group members had unsuccessfully tried to install it next to a monument of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma Capitol in protest against the religious symbol on government grounds. 

In the end, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the Ten Commandments monument to be taken down as it violated state laws on the separation of church and state. The group saw it as a win.

The Temple then tried to erect Baphomet at the state legislature in Little Rock, Ark., next to another Ten Commandments monument.

“It will be a very cold day in hell before an offensive statue will be forced upon us,” Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert wrote on the day the statue was brought to town. A lawsuit launched by the ACLU against the Ten Commandments monument is ongoing.

READ MORE: ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ threatened with legal action by Satanic Temple

The group’s headquarters are currently in Salem, Mass., in a restored Victorian home a mile away from Gallows Hill, the site where Puritans executed dozens of people accused of witchcraft in the 17th century.

“The history of Salem is also part of the history of Satanism,” the Satanic Temple’s co-founder Lucien Greaves said at the time. 

The group has shown no signs of slowing down this year.

In April, the group was designated as an official tax-exempt church by the Internal Revenue Service in the United States.

“This acknowledgment will help make sure The Satanic Temple has the same access to public spaces as other religious organizations, affirm our standing in court when battling religious discrimination, and enable us to apply for faith-based government grants,” the group wrote in a post on Instagram.

Last November, the Satanic Temple sued Netflix and Warner Bros. over the use of a Baphomet statue in the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina series. Greaves accused the show of "appropriating our copyrighted monument designed to promote their asinine Satanic Panic fiction." An undisclosed settlement was reached later that month.

Last month, a Temple member caused an uproar in Alaska by saying “hail Satan” at the outset of a government meeting in a southern borough, prompting dozens of officials to walk out.

But perhaps the biggest recent boost to the group’s membership base and brand recognition has come from a new feature documentary currently in theatres entitled Hail Satan? that provides an immersive look at the group’s evolution and its activism.

“The film is probably the most common thing that people say brings them to us,” Marc said. “It really has been great for us in terms of awareness about who we are. And a lot of people who see it think they may have more in common with us than they’d think. They think, ‘Am I a Satanist?’”

The Satanic Temple vs. the Church of Satan

The Satanic Temple is not to be confused with the Church of Satan, which was founded in 1966 by a musician from San Francisco named Anton LaVey, who died in 1997. 

“The Church of Satan expresses vehement opposition to the campaigns and activities of the Satanic Temple, asserting themselves as the only 'true' arbiters of Satanism, while the Satanic Temple dismisses the Church of Satan as irrelevant and inactive,” the Temple states on its website.

LaVey, who played the devil in the Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby, published The Satanic Bible in 1969 and caused media firestorms for things like televising a satanic baptism and a satanic wedding.

Then the “Satanic Panic” or “Satanism Scare” of the 1980s and 1990s ensued, in which fundamentalist Christians, overzealous law enforcement and some media outlets perpetuated mass hysteria around violent “satanic ritual abuse,” including against daycares. Thousands of people all over the world, including in Canada, were wrongfully accused of committing horrendous crimes in the name of Satan.

Many Satanists, including members of the Satanic Temple, neither worship the devil nor believe in Satan as the evil force outlined in religious texts such as the Bible. Rather, they perceive Satan or Lucifer as a witty intellectual who confronts the status quo, more in line with the literary anti-hero of the Enlightenment found in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.

“For the most part, they are using Satan as a symbol, as a metaphor,” said Cimminnee Holt, a lecturer at Concordia University in Montreal who specializes in modern religious Satanism. “Most of them are atheists — not all. But even those that aren’t atheists still aren’t conceiving of Satan as a cosmic evil.”

As for whether the Satanic Temple has staying power, specifically in Canada, Holt said that remains to be seen. But because the Temple is tackling important and topical issues of the day, that will contribute to its longevity and relevance. 

“A new religion always emerges as a response to negotiating the demands of modern society. They are emerging as something they see as lacking,” Holt said. “They are always reflecting contemporary ideas. As long as they continue to be invested in challenging those issues, I certainly think they will have an audience for that. Whether or not that lasts five, 10, 100 years, no scholar knows.”

And it is particularly difficult for fringe religious groups to push their way into the mainstream and gain acceptance, she said.

“The general population’s reaction to Satanism or witches or those types of groups tends to run the range from amusement, or even boredom, to then genuine fear that this is a theological threat, that they represent evil,” Holt said. “No matter what, the very nature of the imagery and the symbol of Satan means that widespread acceptance is not necessarily feasible.”

Canadian Satan

Last November, Samantha Sphinx started the Friends of the Satanic Temple in Alberta Facebook page. The unofficial group, which has more than 400 members online and draws crowds of around 20 to 30 people when they meet in person, is vying for official chapter status.

Sphinx, who is based in Calgary and wanted to be identified using a pseudonymous last name, was drawn to the Satanic Temple because of its political activism. Being from the province that has a reputation for being the heart of conservatism in Canada, this is especially important to her.

"We're like the Texas of Canada," Sphinx said. "And people in Alberta, politically, are known for being a lot more vocal and aggressive than some of the other provinces as well."

She added that she and other members are also concerned with the upcoming federal election in Canada.

"If you are not a natural conservative, you feel that this is a scary election," she said. "We're worried to have what the States has, and with the rise of what happened in the States, it's just going to get worse for us as Canadians."

Sphinx said that once her group is granted official chapter status by the national council, members plan to present themselves in public spaces as a united Satanist front.

"People really want the rules in place so they know what we can do and what we can't because we don't want to do anything that's going to affect our chapter status possibly," she said. "My dream is literally to turn the Alberta chapter into one of the most formidable chapters that TST can have, because I know they'll have membership out here and I know that we can do a lot of stuff when we are together."

As for the future of the Satanic Temple in Canada, Marc says the group will continue to do charitable work locally and advocate for women’s rights — this includes donating feminine hygiene products to shelters as part of their Menstruation for Satan program. 

READ MORE: Protesters target Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at Calgary Stampede over gay-straight alliances

The group is also exploring applying for charitable status through the Canada Revenue Agency, similar to what the organization has done in the U.S.

“We need to see what that would look like and how exactly it would work, but that would be a very important next step for us,” Marc said. "We believe very strongly that we have all the elements of a religion. These are very much our deeply held beliefs. It's just a matter of convincing the government that our beliefs are deeply held without any association to the supernatural."

And the group is closely following political rhetoric around the federal election in the fall.

“Canada has definitely taken a conservative slide politically, which a lot of people feel a need to counteract,” Marc said. “A lot of people in Canada think that we're immune to these things. I feel that wave is coming back, and we need to be ready.“

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